Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s leadership calamity


(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette/Associated Press)

Canada isn't usually the first place one thinks of when it comes to scandals involving elected leaders, but Toronto may currently have other big cities beat.

In case you've missed it, the city's mayor, Rob Ford, has gotten worldwide attention after an alleged video surfaced that purportedly shows him smoking crack cocaine. (The authenticity of the video, which two reporters at the Toronto Star and one at the gossip site Gawker say they have viewed, has not been independently verified. The video also has not been released publicly.)

It is the latest—and if true, by far the worst—controversy to surround Rob Ford, whose two years in office have included brushes that ranged from the serious (Ford denied wrongdoing in a conflict-of-interest fundraising case) to the simply surreal (when asked whether he was reading while driving after a picture caught him doing so, he said "Yeah, probably. I'm busy.") And that's not all: Other controversies include being accused of grabbing a former rival's behind (Ford called that claim "absolutely, completely false") and getting banned from coaching football at Toronto Catholic schools after he made comments about students in an interview.

Ford has made the current situation worse by the misguided way he's handled the smoking allegations. Rather than fully addressing the issue immediately, he dismissed the existence of the video, calling the allegations "ridiculous" and apparently ducking questions for days. When he finally held a press conference, he read from a statement in which he said, "I do not use crack cocaine, nor am I an addict of crack cocaine,” but allowed no questions. Since then, he's reportedly ousted his chief of staff and his two top communications staffers have resigned, according to reporting by the Star. He's even called reporters a "bunch of maggots," although he later apologized.

Now, city and provincial leaders are trying to deal with a situation they say is starting to affect the city's governance. Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne expressed concerns about distractions, saying Tuesday that "it's difficult to lead, it's difficult to govern, when the ability to focus is compromised." Real business is reportedly getting put off. Ford has walked out of press conferences on other city issues, and the Star's editorial page writes that a high-profile trade mission to Boston has been postponed because the mayor is constantly being following by reporters: "Every other issue is obscured."

No matter what is actually on the alleged video (if it is indeed real) and no matter how many past controversies he's found himself in, Ford's crisis management alone raises real issues about his leadership. The longer questions linger unanswered about the video, the harder it will be for him to lead. As one PR expert wrote recently about the Toronto scandal, "the truth is that how public figures handle crises attracts almost as much attention and coverage these days as the actual crises themselves." For Ford, neither one looks very good.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Toronto mayor says crack video doesn't exist, calls media "a bunch of maggots"

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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